The praise: Raging Bull was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture and best director. (It was Scorsese's first director nomination.) It won the prizes for leading actor (Robert De Niro, who also won the Golden Globe) and editing; the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, would go on to win Oscars for her work on Scorsese's The Aviator and The Departed, too. The movie was declared one of the best of the year by many organizations and individual film critics, along with a spot on Cahiers du Cinema's top 10 list for 1980. In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked it No. 24 on the list of all-time best American movies, and bumped it up to No. 4 on the 2007 revised list. Entertainment Weekly's list of the best movies ever made has it at No. 5; Empire Magazine put it at No. 11. The movie directors polled by Sight & Sound in 1992 called it the third-best film of all time; the 2002 poll had it in sixth place.
The context: Martin Scorsese was lucky to make it out of the 1970s alive. He rose to prominence with Mean Streets (1973) and >a href="http://www.film.com/movies/alice-doesnt-live-here-anymore/6157147">Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), gained serious critical and popular success with the controversial Taxi Driver (1976), and flamed out with the disastrous musical New York, New York (1977). Somewhere in there he developed one of the epic cocaine addictions that were so popular in Hollywood in those days.
It was his friend and collaborator Robert De Niro (who'd starred in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York) who saved Scorsese's life by persuading him to make Raging Bull. De Niro had read boxer Jake LaMotta's autobiography several years earlier and was convinced the character would make a great movie protagonist. Scorsese had turned the project down several times, but now, with nothing else to do, his health failing, and suspecting it might be the last film he ever got to make, he threw himself wholeheartedly into bringing Raging Bull to life. He saw it not as a boxing story but as the story of a man trying to redeem himself, which Scorsese could relate to.
Martik Martin, who had co-written Mean Streets and New York, New York, adapted LaMotta's book, but his screenplay was significantly rewritten by Paul Schrader, author of Taxi Driver. Among the major changes was the addition of LaMotta's brother, Joey, who was strangely absent from LaMotta's autobiography and thus from Martin's adaptation. After Schrader was finished, Scorsese and De Niro revised the script again, contributing the now-famous scene where Jake fixes his TV, argues with his brother, and accuses his wife of cheating on him.
Meanwhile, Scorsese had decided to shoot the film in black-and-white. There were several reasons for this. It fit with the film being set primarily in the 1940s, and it recalled the old Expressionist films that Scorsese would emulate. It freed Scorsese from worrying about period details like what color the boxing gloves should be. The abundant blood wouldn't appear quite as disgusting; Scorsese used chocolate syrup, like Hitchcock did in Psycho. It would immediately provide a contrast between this film and the hugely successful Rocky movies, to let viewers know they were seeing something completely different. And it would circumvent a problem Scorsese and others were concerned about, the fact that color film fades over time.
De Niro was as passionate about this project as Scorsese was, if not more so, and his commitment to the role has become legendary. Production stopped for four months so that De Niro could gain 50 or 60 pounds and convincingly play Jake during his later years. The 5-foot-9-inch actor ballooned from a lean 150 pounds and a boxer's physique -- the real LaMotta trained with De Niro and said the actor could easily have a career as a fighter -- to something like 210 pounds and a Tony Soprano build. De Niro was so unhealthy at this point that Scorsese hurried through the remainder of the shoot as quickly as possible, not wanting to prolong his friend's fat-assedness any longer than necessary.
The movie: Bronx-born Jake LaMotta is an up-and-coming middleweight boxer whose paranoia and temper cause more drama outside the ring than inside. He marries a teenager named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and navigates the perilous world of fighting with the help of his brother/manager, Joey (Joe Pesci), and some assistance from the Mafia.
What it influenced: Countless movie tough guys have emulated Robert De Niro over the years, usually drawing from Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Both films have iconic scenes in which De Niro talks to himself in a mirror -- "You talkin' to me?" in Taxi Driver; "I coulda been a contender" in Raging Bull -- so the image is forever linked with him. The last scene of Boogie Nights directly parallels the Raging Bull finale, with Dirk Diggler psyching himself up in front of a dressing-room mirror.
Jake's particularly brutal beating of baby-faced opponent Tony Janiro leads an observer to say, "He ain't pretty no more." That line has taken on a life of its own. It was echoed by Moe in a 2000 episode of The Simpsons (he was watching a monkey knife fight), while the whole scenario -- a man taking out his aggression on a handsomer man -- was replayed in Fight Club, with Jared Leto as the victim. ("I felt like destroying something beautiful" is how Edward Norton's character explains it.) A Google search for "he ain't pretty no more" yields more than 1,500 results that don't mention Raging Bull, with the expression often being used to describe a verbal beatdown.
In another famous scene, the paranoid Jake demands to know if his brother, Joey, is sleeping with Jake's wife. His terminology is blunt: "Are you f****** my wife?" In Waiting for Guffman, someone uses this as his audition scene for a community-theater production (and earns Guffman an R rating in the process).
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind's 1998 book about Hollywood in the 1970s, suggests that the two films referenced in the title are bookends to a creative renaissance. Easy Rider (1969) helped launch the "New Hollywood" movement, where young directors broke free from studio interference and made movies that were both financially and artistically successful. Raging Bull came at the end of the cycle, when the newly liberated filmmakers had made too many mistakes, and the people holding the pursestrings started to take control again. Raging Bull itself was not one of the mistakes, but it turned out to be one of the last films made during this loosely defined Golden Age.
On March 30, 1981, the very day that the Oscar winners were to be announced, President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr., whose obsession with Scorsese's Taxi Driver (and Jodie Foster's performance in it) soon became famous. The Oscars were postponed until the next day. Legend has sprung up that the Scorsese connection to Hinckley's actions hurt Raging Bull's chances at the Oscars, but of course that's not possible, as the ballots had been submitted several days before the shooting. Another legend has it that Scorsese was worried about his safety now that everyone was associating his work with a nutcase who tried to kill the president, and that he had undercover FBI agents flank him at the Academy Awards. That, too, is false. Hinckley's Taxi Driver fetish didn't start to become public knowledge until the day of the Oscars, and Scorsese himself didn't hear about it until that night, either backstage at the show or at a post-show party. Whatever anti-Scorsese backlash there was happened well after the Oscars.
De Niro's 50-pound weight gain for the role was unprecedented, and it was considered emblematic of his overall commitment to the part. Every actor who has done anything similar since then -- Val Kilmer in The Doors, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Christian Bale in The Machinist -- has been compared to De Niro. (Note to aspiring actors: It's somewhat less impressive when you just get really fat. It has to be for a role.)
What to look for: Most boxing movies show the action from the spectators' point of view, outside the ring. Scorsese put the camera in the ring, almost like a third fighter, and carefully choreographed the boxers' movements as if it were a dance routine. The boxing scenes, which comprise only 10 minutes of the movie's running time, took twice as long to shoot as they were supposed to.
Those fight scenes are different from everything else in the movie. Outside the ring, the movie resembles the neo-realism of the 1940s and '50s (as seen in Bicycle Thieves and some of Fellini's early films): gritty, domestic, mundane, frustrated. Inside the ring, Raging Bull is pure Expressionism, with sounds and images exaggerated to show a subjective point of view. The size of the ring literally changes from one fight to another, to suggest claustrophobia or liberation. Things occur in slow-motion, set to classical music, like a ballet. Scorsese lingers on specific images like blood dripping from the rope. The sound of the camera flashbulbs is actually the sound of glass being shattered, the crowd noises are enhanced with bird calls and other shrieks, and the punches come from recordings of melons and tomatoes being smashed. Jake LaMotta isn't just in a different frame of mind when he's boxing. He's in a different world -- a different movie -- altogether.
The film ends with an older, fatter Jake rehearsing a monologue in a dressing-room mirror. Having retired from boxing, he fancies himself an actor now. The speech he's doing, with its "I coulda been a contender" climax, is from On the Waterfront, the 1954 drama starring Marlon Brando as a fighter-turned-bum. In real life, LaMotta used a speech from Richard III here, but Scorsese decided it would seem out of place in such an American film. Using something from On the Waterfront was appropriate. Both films are about a boxer and his brother, and De Niro had redone a Marlon Brando character once before, in The Godfather Part II (1974), playing the young Don Corleone.
The famous line "He ain't pretty no more" is spoken by a Mafioso named Tommy Como. He's played by Nicholas Colasanto, who is now perhaps better known for playing Coach on the first three seasons of Cheers.
What's the big deal: Raging Bull got mostly good reviews on its release, not to mention the Oscar nominations, but its box-office gross of $23 million -- $68 million at today's ticket prices -- was underwhelming. By the end of the decade, however, it was being hailed as one of the best films of the 1980s, and the U.S. Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990 -- the first year it was eligible -- for being "culturally, historically or esthetically significant." Most boxing movies followed the Rocky formula of an underdog trying to go the distance. Raging Bull turned that narrative on its ear, with a violent and loathsome main character using the boxing ring to work out his psychosexual issues.
De Niro's Oscar-winning performance is rightly considered one of the best of its kind, as the actor completely gives himself over to the requirements of the role, no matter what awful physical and emotional places it takes him to. The film earned Scorsese the first of his seven Oscar nominations (so far), and reassured audiences that, New York, New York missteps aside, he was a proficient and powerful director. Thirty years later, he's still one of the most widely respected filmmakers in history. It's with Raging Bull that that reputation was solidified.
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Eric D. Snider (website) ain't pretty no more either.